Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 17.
Stephen Denmark, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Justin Layne, Steven Nelson, James Pierre, Cameron Sutton, Trevor Williams
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2 unrestricted – Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton)
Take a look at the best photos taken of the Steelers cornerbacks during the 2020 season
A LAST LOOK AT 2020
Statistically, at least, there was not a lot to complain about. The Steelers finished the season ranked third in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, first in completion percentage allowed, second in interception percentage, fifth in third-down conversion percentage, and the 22 touchdown passes allowed was fifth best in the NFL. Their 18 interceptions was tied for most in the league, along with Miami, New England, and New Orleans. The Steelers also finished sixth in red zone defense.
It should be understood that the Steelers' successes in pass defense last season deserve to be credited in part to a pass rush that again led the NFL in sacks. Rush and coverage go hand-in-hand in the NFL, and the Steelers' pressure packages plus the individual abilities of pass-rushers such as T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Bud Dupree contributed to whatever success the cornerbacks enjoyed last season, and vice versa.
As for the depth chart at cornerback, there was a clear and distinct division in that four of the eight cornerbacks on the roster saw the lion's share of the defensive snaps, while the bottom half was relegated almost exclusively to special teams, or to the inactive list on game days. While this speaks well to the top of this depth chart, it also could be an ominous sign for the future of the position, which could start as early as the 2021 season.
The top half of the depth chart included starters Steven Nelson and Joe Haden, and then Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton both were major components of the team's sub-packages. The individual statistics those four players accumulated and the team statistics to which they were major contributors indicate they deserved the playing time they received, but now the question is how much longer are they going to be together.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Of the Steelers top four players at this position, only Sutton was a draft choice, a No. 3 pick in 2017. Haden and Hilton both were cut by other NFL teams, and Nelson was signed as an unrestricted free agent.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers CB Cameron Sutton from the 2020 season
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2021
This is another one of those positions that's in flex for the Steelers, and it starts with Nelson and Haden both entering the final seasons of their contracts. Nelson, 28, is due to earn $8.25 million in 2021 and carries a cap charge of $14.42 million; and Haden, 32, is due to earn $7 million in 2021 and carries a cap charge of $15.575 million. In a lot of versions of the search for ways to trim the team's salary cap, Nelson and Haden are identified as possibilities because of the cap numbers they carry.
But creating cap space this way could come at a significant cost, because not only would that delete the team's starters at an important position but it would come at the same time the Nos. 3-4 players at the position – Sutton and Hilton – are on the verge of becoming unrestricted free agents. And all of this could be happening at a time when the top players under contract behind those four are Justin Layne and James Pierre, neither of whom can boast much of a resume as part of an NFL defense.
Layne particularly is a curious case, because when the Steelers made him a third-round pick, the 83rd overall, in the 2019 NFL Draft his size – 6-foot-2, 192 pounds – and skill-set made him an interesting developmental prospect. That opinion was solidified during the 2019 season when Layne first replaced Artie Burns as a gunner on the punt team and showed some ability and want-to there, and then took the former No. 1 pick's spot in the sub-package defense. But since then, Layne hasn't shown much progress, and while he did continue to contribute on special teams – he had 12 special teams tackles in 2020 – by the end of the season he had been replaced on defense by undrafted rookie James Pierre.
Whether the Steelers viewed Layne's lack of progress as an indictment of Tom Bradley isn't known for certain, but the team didn't renew his contract at the end of the 2020 season.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers CB Justin Layne from the 2020 season
The aforementioned salary cap crunch also figures to impact what the Steelers will be able to do in any endeavor to keep Hilton and/or Sutton. Based on the number of snaps that teams now utilize multiple-defensive-back formations on defense, both Hilton and Sutton could be in relatively high demand when the bidding opens on Wednesday, March 17.
Hilton has developed into a player adept at blitzing and making tackles for loss vs. the running game, while Sutton is versatile enough to play in the slot or on the outside. Hilton will make more sacks and tackles for loss, while Sutton is better in coverage and has more versatility in where he can be deployed on the field.
It's assumed Sutton is looking for a clear chance at a starting job, and if Nelson and Haden both return for the final seasons on their contracts he wouldn't have that with the Steelers in 2021; and whether Hilton would be as effective on a team that might not utilize him in the same manner as the Steelers did is an unknown. But because so many of the teams with money to spend in free agency also happen to be in need of help at cornerback, the market could be strong for both of these guys.
The Steelers went through a stretch where cornerback was a weakness on their defense, but after they convinced Haden to come to Pittsburgh and signed Nelson as an unrestricted free agent, the position became a nice complement to their pass rush, it became a position of relative strength on their defense.
Age is going to force the Steelers to make changes here, but it's going to be the impact of the salary cap and unrestricted free agency that determines how quickly and how drastic those changes are going to have to be.
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